Early in Ben Simmons’ career, we’ve seen defenders - completely non-threatened by a Ben Simmons jump shot - sagging. Sagging off of Simmons has a few benefits on paper. First, he doesn’t have a jumper outside of 13 feet, so you don’t expect him to rise up and shoot. Then, theoretically, you’re clogging the lane so it’s harder for him to get to the rim. And finally, since he’s faster moving forward than you are moving backwards, you get a head start on recovering if he is going to get past you. Theoretically.
So far, that hasn’t really worked for defenders against Simmons. Here’s some evidence of Simmons being sagged off of, all on baskets where he scored at the rim:
And this last one, taken in the exact moment the defender realized he made a terrible mistake:
And those are just on made baskets. The collapsing defense caused by these downhill drives also leaves to open kick-outs. But players have attempted to guard Simmons tight. Usually weak defenders. And it usually didn’t work:
But most teams don’t have Jae Crowder, a 6-foot-7, 230 pounder with a 7-foot wingspan known for his defense. Crowder even said after last night’s game that he tried to play Simmons tight because most people sag off of him:
"I wanted to guard him a little differently than how I've been watching other teams guard so far off him and let him get a head of steam and go downhill. I feel pretty good. It was a good challenge.”
Of course Crowder is a known well-defender and NBA vet, so he can watch film and decide that he’s gonna play Ben differently. But after last Wednesday’s game against Portland, Simmons himself expressed befuddlement at why players sag off him:
He flew too close to the sun. Personally, I get why players sag, but it obviously wasn’t working. Crowder would have played him tight either way, but by sounding so confused by it, Simmons may have tempted fate. Go back at look at those coverages above, and then come back down here and peep how Crowder played Ben.
He played him - which no one has done - way out past the three-point line:
Even Jeff Green played him well above the break:
And off-ball, you saw a lot of this, which is sometimes a foul but 90% of the time it’s just a smart defensive strategy:
Most teams defended Simmons softly this season because they just don’t have the speed, length, and strength to do what the Cavs did last night. The combo of Crowder, Green, and LeBron James held Simmons to 10 points on 5/11 shooting, but their effect is seen most visibly in Simmons’ two assists. Without the ability to drive easily around slower and smaller defenders, his passing lanes and open looks were cut down.
Now, was it a rough night for Simmons? Sure. He still put up 10 points and 8 rebounds. And as I said above, not every team has a Jae Crowder, and only one team has a LeBron James. It’s his rookie year, and he’ll have to adapt and evolve to become a better, more effective player. Eventually, a jump shot will help. Last night though, the Cavs had him figured out.